An old and haughty nation, proud in arms.
— John Milton, Comus
Now that the administration has decided to provide small arms to the rebels in Syria it may be useful to recall what happened back in the 1980’s when we were supplying arms to the mujahideen who back then were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Of course Afghanistan is not Syria. In furnishing arms to the Syrian rebels we know exactly who those rebels are and how they will behave once Bashar al-Assad is no longer in power, whereas we had no idea, as it turned out, what kind of people we were arming in the 1980s. To aid our recollection we follow the perambulations of the stinger missile.
In 1978 the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power in the Saur Revolution. Upset by their victory, the guerrilla mujahideen who were opponents of the newly installed government began a civil war in Afghanistan. In order to protect the government the Soviet Union sent in military advisors to support the government. The advisors entered in 1979 and the last Soviet troops did not withdraw, until 1989. Following the Soviet invasion, President Jimmy Carter said: “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War.” Whether he was right or wrong is unimportant for our purposes. What is more important is what the United States did following the invasion.
In order to counter the Soviets and to help the mujahideen defeat the Soviets, the CIA began a program known as Operation Cyclone. During that operation the CIA sold arms to the Afghan mujahideen. The mujahideen comprised militant Islamic groups including al Qaeda that Osama bin Laden had started that eventually brought us 9/11. Of course, that was long before 9/11 and we had no idea that, included among those we were arming, were groups that would prove to be less than friendly to us once they got rid of the Soviet troops. Even if we’d known, however, we would have continued to support that group because they were fighting Soviet troops. One thousand Stingers were sold to the Mujahideen and as one American intelligence official told the Washington Post, “We were handing them out like lollipops.”
The Stingers helped the Afghans drive out the Red Army but after the Red Army left so did a lot of the Stingers. According to some reports the lost Stingers ended up in such disparate places as Croatia, Iran and North Korea. At least 13 of the Stingers were purchased by Qatar from Iran. The 13 Stingers sold to Qatar by Iran were acquired by Iran when Iranian Revolutionary Guards ambushed a mujahideen military convoy and captured the stingers that the convoy had in its possession. Iran reportedly could not make the Stingers work, perhaps, it is surmised, because their batteries were dead. Whatever the cause, Iran was delighted to unload some of them on Qatar. Qatar was happy to get them for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with Afghanistan or Iran. They wanted the stingers because the United States had sold 70 stingers to Bahrain. That sale was made because the United States wanted Bahrain to be able to defend itself from Iran in case Iran were to use the weapons it had gotten from Reagan’s Oliver North against Bahrain. Qatar wanted Stingers to protect itself from an attack by Bahrain. Accordingly, when Iran offered to sell Qatar the Stingers that it could not make work, Qatar jumped at the chance to buy them.
The CIA did not like having stingers on the loose and wanted to buy them back. It began offering to pay twice as much as the stingers cost but was unable to recover all the ones it had sold. Part of its eagerness to recapture the stingers was because of a fear that in a future conflict the missiles might be used against the United States. One intelligence officer said that: “The things have spread so far that we don’t even know where they are anymore.”
Qatar was so proud of its Stingers that it displayed them in a military parade. Someone in the Reagan administration was watching the parade and immediately sent Richard Murphy from the State Department to Qatar to get the Stingers back. Mr. Murphy approached Crown Prince bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar’s defense minister and demanded that the missiles be returned to the United States. Not surprisingly, the minister declined, probably thinking that his country had paid good money for the missiles and was not obliged to return them to the United States just because the United States wanted them back.
All of the foregoing was then. This is now. None of this has any applicability to what the Obama administration now wants to give to Syrian rebels. For one thing the small arms being given the rebels do not pose the possibility of being the future hazard to our well being that the stinger missiles did. For another thing, if by chance we begin furnishing weapons like Stingers to the rebel groups we will take care to make sure that the rebel groups to which we give arms are our friends for life-not like the mujahideen who became Al-Qaeda.